20th April 2020 - Looe Island Nature Highlights

View along back of island © Claire Lewis

I'm Claire, and Looe Island is my home all year round. I'm a nature warden on this extra-special nature reserve, owned by Cornwall Wildlife Trust, along with my partner Jon, some mischievous sheep and a few hens. And a lot of sea birds and marine animals, with Looe Island being particularly famous for our seals. Each week I’ll try to share some of the things we’ve seen, heard or smelt (!) on the island. Hopefully by following my blog you’ll get a sense of what it’s like on Looe Island Nature Reserve and when we open later this year, you might just want to come over on the ferry and visit!

You know how, if you see someone yawning, it sets you off?  Well that happened to me and this seal.

First it yawned, then I yawned, then it yawned… still, between yawns I did manage to get a good picture of its teeth!

Grey Seal Yawning © Claire Lewis

Grey Seal Yawning © Claire Lewis

The teeny weeny stuff

There are peacocks on the island.  Wonderfully colourful creatures with bold eyespots on their wings.  But these are not large exotic birds but butterflies.

Peacock butterfly on brambles © Claire Lewis

Peacock butterfly on brambles © Claire Lewis

We are seeing a lot of them because they ‘hibernate’ over winter and then emerge during the wonderfully warm Spring days.  Now not a lot of people know this … this butterfly can make a sound.  If disturbed it will rub it’s wings together to make hissing/rustling noise.  It does that to scare off predators and if that doesn’t work it can always flash open its wings to reveal those ‘eyes’.  It hopes that’ll trick its attacker into thinking it’s a much bigger animal – clever stuff eh?

Talking of tricking others - I spotted this hoverfly the other day.

Hoverfly on wild garlic © Claire Lewis

Hoverfly on wild garlic © Claire Lewis

Many hoverflies look like bees or wasps, but they are in fact true flies and that means they don’t sting - phew! But why mimic bees and wasps?  By looking like a stinging insect (which also tastes unpleasant) hoverflies are avoided by predators.  And that gives them a better chance of survival.

Now, there are about 250 different species of hoverfly in Britain and I have no idea what species I saw.  So I’ll send my photo to Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Wildlife Information Service – they are very clever people. And the great thing is, if they don’t know the answer, they know who to ask.  Once we find out what type of hoverfly it is, the sighting can be added to the Cornwall Wildlife Trust hosted Environmental Records Centre for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (abbreviated to ERCCIS).  The work they do is fantastic, because by understanding what wildlife is out there, they can help conserve it – yeah!

The greeny stuff

Smells.  We all know that some are nice and others not so.  I was passing an area where normally the things I sniff are wafts of the sheep, seaweed or guano, but today there was something else, something with a gentle, sweet fragrance.  I couldn’t work it out.  Upon looking over the cliffs I found the answer - sea campion.  Well, I never. Why have I have not noticed its scent before?  It was gorgeous.

Sea Campion © Claire Lewis

Sea Campion © Claire Lewis

Sea campion looks such a delicate white flower but it’s actually really tough.  It’s drawn to wind lashed sea cliffs, especially those that are thick with ‘guano’, or birds’ poo to you and me.  Lots of plants can’t cope with the overload of nutrients from the poo but this sweet smelling beauty gets stuck right in a flourishes.

Moving away from the cliffs and into the woods we have plenty of luscious green unfurling ferns.

Hart's-tongue fern © Claire Lewis

Hart's-tongue fern © Claire Lewis

A favourite fern of mine is probably the simplest.  It’s called Hart’s-tongue fern, and guess what?  It’s leaves are long and straight and like a, well, a tongue.  A deer’s tongue apparently.  For me it’s the freshly un-curly fronds that I like. They make me think of a snake’s heads.  Maybe a cobra?

Unfurling fern leaf © Claire Lewis

Unfurling fern leaf © Claire Lewis

As with many plants this fern is said to have several medical uses – including as treatments for dysentery, diarrhoea and digestive problems.  I do hope I never have to try that out!

The feathery stuff

Oh wow, exciting times – the Godwits are passing though.  Godwits are ab fab stunning birds. 

Godwit resting on the island © Claire Lewis

Godwit resting on the island © Claire Lewis

In the summer they put on rich and rusty reddy-orange plumage and some of these migrants are all ready to rock!

It’s not just their colour that impresses but also their elegant long wader legs and slim, slightly upturned bill.  One year we spotted a couple of these migrants with coloured rings on their legs.  We did a bit of research and learnt that the birds were from a Dutch project in the Wadden Sea.  In the summer wilsterflappers (that is such a cool Dutch word I had to use it) helped find the birds and they were given ID rings.  These rings let scientists learn more about where the Godwits go as they migrate south for the winter.  Turns out that the ringed birds we’d seen were travelling back to the Netherlands from a winter in Mauritania, West Africa!  We were proud to think that we’d acted as a welcome staging post on such an epic journey.

In the mornings I can hear the pitter patter of tiny feet …. on the cottage roof.  I already know what it is as it’s accompanied by a distinctive loud laughing call.  It’s a gull.  In this case it’s a Herring Gull.  Three different types of gull nest on the island but I think I’ll focus on these best-known gulls first. 

Calling herring gulls © Claire Lewis

Calling herring gulls © Claire Lewis

When people think of a gull (or as they are sometimes called, seagull), they probably picture a Herring Gull.  Sometimes they have a bad reputation for scavenging from bins and stealing food off us humans but they are just using their intelligence and being adaptable.  Yes, they can be messy and noisy, but they always make me think of seaside holidays and I can’t imagine a world without them.

Here on the island the Herring Gulls nest on the sea cliffs and breeding season has definitely gotten underway.  Each nest is a well prepared cup of grasses and twigs.  I was pleased to spot this nest with just one egg but they’ll lay up to four.

Every year the Herring Gulls and other sea birds are monitored.  I’ll say more about that in a future blog – I can’t wait to see how successful this season will be.

The salty stuff

Well, seals never fail to surprise me.

Hauled out young seal © Claire Lewis

Hauled out young seal © Claire Lewis

This week there was another seal hauled out in an unusual place.  This time it was a super cute juvenile grey seal.  The young seal would have left where it was born last autumn/winter and gone on a big adventure, exploring our Celtic Coast.  Being a new arrival to the island, it needs to learn the ropes.  Lesson one – where is the best place to haul out and rest up?  Not on those rocks, I’d say.

I’ll share my seal photos of this seal with Looe Seal Hub.  This amazing volunteer team will add my photos to the ID Catalogue and, this is the best bit, if the seal hasn’t been seen before, then they get to name it!  To help future identifications they try to give the seals names linked to patterns seen in their fur.  To be honest it’s sometimes a bit inventive.  This is my favourite seal, she’s called Duchess:

Duchess my favourite Grey Seal © Claire Lewis

Duchess my favourite Grey Seal © Claire Lewis

Bet you can’t tell why she’s called that!  No?  It’s because of a ‘chain’ of black marks around her neck.  Could those marks possibly look like a string of black pearls – something that only a Duchess would wear?  Like I said, sometimes a bit of imagination is needed when it comes to naming seals!

I found a small but fascinating marine creature earlier in the week.  It was a worm pipefish.

Worm pipefish © Claire Lewis

Worm pipefish © Claire Lewis

Nothing too unusual about that – they are often spotted close in to shore.  But when I saw it’s underside, this one was carrying eggs – and that meant it must be a male pipefish.  A what?  Yes, a male pipefish.  Just like their relatives, the seahorses, the males (not the females) look after the eggs in a brood pouch.

Male worm pipefish with eggs © Claire Lewis

Male worm pipefish with eggs © Claire Lewis

The male will incubate the eggs for around two weeks before they hatch.  Roll on May when these wriggly delights will be swimming free.  And what’s more, these little pipefish are endearing as they usually mate with just one partner, for life – sweet!

Coming soon…

  • Wafts of Wild Garlic
  • Entertaining Oystercatchers
  • Surely migrant moths?
Face in the rocks © Claire Lewis

Face in the rocks © Claire Lewis

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Grey Seal halued out